Children have imaginations and an intrinsic driving force to play. Open ended toys are exactly that – open to interpretation, direction and have no set intention for use.
I will caveat this post by saying that toys, especially an abundance of toys, are not essential. Simply providing children with access to nature and the outdoors supports open ended play within itself. A stick can be a wand, a spoon, used to build or anything the child imagines. We are surrounded by elements that support play, as the natural environment has done for thousands of years across many generations of children. It is a condition of our modern-day lifestyle in which we have more responsibilities and often less time outdoors, that the mindful curation of a play space with an intentional, purposeful selection of toys has become more important.
Investing into the right type of toys, will serve our children over generations, developmental stages, play schemas, interests and seasons of life.
Open ended toys are free from instructions. Consider toys and resources that have no set use or directive. These could include items such as blocks, balls and the inclusion of loose parts.
Children are able to build, create and imagine whatever they desire. These resources have no time frame. For example, battery operated toys that play music require a child to press a button, the toy plays music then the play is essentially finished. The child is passive in this process and the toy does not require them to “work” in order to receive the naturally reinforcing process that occurs during imaginary play.
This also has implications for brain development. Such toys activate the dopamine response in a child’s brain. This is essentially the neurological pathway that tells us what we should seek more of. Ultimately, children who predominately have access to toys that play for them, screens or toys with a set directive, become conditioned to the expectation of being ‘entertained’. They become dependent on an external force fulfilling their play which dials down their intrinsic, internal driving force to play, one which they are all born with.
This impacts a child’s ability to play independently but has wider implications as a child is then not provided with space to process experiences, problem solve, regulate emotions and do many of the things we evidentially know that imaginary and open-ended play serves a child with. Play is the space where children learn and process their experiences. If this is a child’s natural ‘work’, then toys and open-ended resources are the child’s tools they need in order to express and externalise their intrinsic driving force to play.